A long time ago I met Roger Ailes. It was Monday November 2, 1970. The next day my candidate — conservative James L. Buckley — would be elected United States Senator from New York. More than a week before the end of Jim’s campaign, I had helped raise $300,000 (in 1970 dollars) from Jack Mulcahy, a wealthy confidante of Richard Nixon and Nixon’s “funding solution” to help Jim. As revealed on the “secret” 1972 Watergate tapes — Nixon would call Mulcahy “the most amazing lovable Irishman.”
After using the money to buy availabilities for 30-second television spots, we still had unspent funds. So at the last minute we bought a 30-minute bloc of time for a live election-eve telethon in New York City, also broadcast simultaneously in other New York media markets — notably Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse-Utica, and Albany.
It would be a risky live production, and one of my mentors, campaign strategist Clif White (who had engineered Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination in 1964), said we could proceed only if Roger Ailes were aboard. Ailes currently is in his twentieth year as head of the Fox News Channel (his four-year contract was set to expire this year, but it was renewed last year). Back then I was 22 years old and knew Ailes only by reputation. Two years earlier, in 1968, Ailes had traded in his job as executive producer for the talk-and-variety Mike Douglas show to enter political advertising at the top — to enhance the image-challenged Richard Nixon and produce ads for Nixon’s successful campaign for president.
For Jim’s telethon in 1970, I watched Ailes adroitly direct six cameras to enhance the fast moving improvisation. He had an intuitive grasp of people and politics. He knew what made for good television. He was focused and quick. He had the judgment of a generalist and the ability of a technician. He was up to his early reputation as detail-oriented, quite obviously hands-on.
So a couple of days ago, when Donald Trump began to complain about Megyn Kelly as moderator for tomorrow’s Fox News presidential debate, it’s inconceivable that Roger Ailes was not involved in the Fox News response. Last year Ailes had backed Kelly after Trump criticized her opening question in the first debate in Cleveland August 6. Ailes is known not only for his shrewdness, but also for his loyalty, a quality surely needed for someone in his position.
All that said, I believe the network should have played it straight this time, as Ailes did last year when Trump said he might boycott Fox. At that time Ailes publicly defended Kelly — (a) as a matter of principle; (b) for Fox morale; (c) to boost Kelly’s status; and (d) to counter the mainstream media attack on Fox as ideological. Trump and Ailes talked on the telephone and agreed on a mutual face-saving status quo ante.
That was then, and this is now. On Monday, a Fox News spokesperson, becoming part of the story, unwisely resorted to polemics and said the network was “surprised he’s [Trump] willing to show that much fear about being questioned by Megyn Kelly”; instead the spokesperson should have simply affirmed the debate format. After Trump yesterday asked his Twitter and Instagram fans, “Should I do the GOP debate?” Fox escalated in a statement that sounded like Vintage-Ailes, an ardent foe of the Iranian regime and old anti-Soviet hardliner and a man not unknown for his sarcasm:
We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.
When Fox News then was asked if the network would make any changes in Thursday’s debate, Ailes himself issued a statement: “Megyn Kelly is an excellent journalist and the entire network stands behind her — she will absolutely be on the debate stage on Thursday night.” I would have issued a statement without mentioning Kelly by name or no statement at all.
The “Putin” statement, as Trump called it, was too much for Trump, who called the Fox News reaction “pathetic” and Kelly a “lightweight.” Earlier yesterday, he had said he “most likely” would not participate. Now, he announced he would do a rival program “with better ratings” to raise money for veterans.
Sen. Ted Cruz cleverly challenged Trump to a two-man debate without moderator, a mano a mano challenge Trump can easily evade. Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani endorsed Trump over Cruz but then faulted Trump for boycotting the Fox debate. Coming just days after the National Review’s “Against Trump,” the Fox News attack on Trump will seem, to many of his supporters, to be conspiratorial.
By not appearing on the debate stage, will Trump forfeit his credibility or validate his independence? Could Trump dramatically reverse himself and appear at the debate, or is the veterans gambit too far gone? Or will he do the veterans benefit afterwards, or over the weekend? How will all this affect the caucus vote on Monday?
How it all plays out nobody knows.
But Roger Ailes is not running against Donald Trump. And Fox News is not an adversary. Roger Ailes and Fox News erred, especially with the mocking “Putin” statement that was over the top; not because it angered Trump, but because it was unprofessional. It gave Donald Trump the high ground.
Now more of the story is coming out. We can see what provoked Roger Ailes.
In a more complete statement issued last night, Fox erred again in editorializing, “We’re not sure how Iowans are going to feel about him walking away from them at the last minute…” Rather than stick to the facts, Fox then argued for journalistic integrity, a reasonable point, but more of concern to insiders than to the masses.
It’s one thing for Trump to say he’ll pull out and Fox ratings will be hurt. It’s quite another to carry a vendetta and threaten the would-be moderator. Here’s what is significant. Fox claims Trump’s campaign manager threatened Megyn Kelly. Fox last night in its longer statement asserted, “Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski… in a call on Monday with a Fox News executive… stated that Megyn had a ‘rough couple of days after the last debate’ and he (Lewandoski) ‘would hate to have her go through that again.’”
The reality is that Trump supporters will cut a lot of slack for Trump, but not for Lewandowski. If he crossed the line and used the language quoted, he showed bad judgment. Or — as Trump might say — Lewandowski is a “lightweight” and “stupid.” Trump has a reputation for backing up his people. Still, don’t be surprised if he repudiates Lewandowski. Trump may be a match for Roger Ailes. Corey Lewandowski is not.